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Special Collection: Urban Expansion


Planning gaps: unexpected urban expansion in five Colombian metropolitan areas


Maria Monica Salazar Tamayo ,

Marron Institute of Urban Management, New York University, New York, NY, US
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Johann Dilak Julio Estrada

Faculty of Finances, Government and International Relations (FIGRI), Universidad Externado de Colombia, Bogota, CO
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Colombia has experienced rapid urbanization over the past three decades. Most Colombian cities doubled their urban extent in the last 10 years which resulted in a high demand for land. This research identifies urban expansion patterns in five of the largest urban agglomerations in Colombia. Urban growth is analysed using satellite images (Landsat 5) and census data to assess spatiotemporal land-use changes over a 30-year period (1990–2020). The actual urban extents are compared with each city’s land-use predictions, instruments, and regulations to ascertain whether local authorities have the capabilities to predict land demand and to guide development processes at the municipal level. The predictions made by local authorities are inaccurate and often underestimate the rates of population growth and land requirements. The findings reveal that local authorities lack the capabilities to manage urban growth and deliver sustainable urban development. This is leading to poor outcomes: low planning standards, urban informality and inefficient land use.


Policy relevance

This research reveals a significant gap between urban land-use policy instruments and actual urban growth patterns in Colombian cities. The findings reveal that the current urban expansion surpassed what local authorities had anticipated and allocated for land use. Although existing policies empower local authorities, their capabilities to effectively monitor and model population growth and associated land requirements are poor. This led to an underestimation of land requirements and poor planning outcomes. To improve future decision-making and management of urban growth, urban planners should use empirical data to inform urban growth scenarios: allocate sufficient land to allow for orderly growth, designate specific areas for development and provide for sufficient infrastructure.

How to Cite: Salazar Tamayo, M. M., & Julio Estrada, J. D. (2022). Planning gaps: unexpected urban expansion in five Colombian metropolitan areas. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 725–744. DOI:
  Published on 30 Sep 2022
 Accepted on 10 Sep 2022            Submitted on 10 Apr 2022

1. Introduction

Understanding the growth patterns, planning instruments and policy decisions of cities is of the most importance. Currently, more than 50% of the global population lives in cities. By 2050 this share will increase to 80%, as stated during the UN-Habitat Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development Habitat III in Quito in 2016. A comprehensive understanding of urban development so far will provide accurate tools to guide the forthcoming development over the next 30–50 years.

Colombia, like many other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, has been urbanizing rapidly in recent decades. According to its latest census, 76% of its population is currently living in cities. In addition to the share of the population living in urban areas, it is important to understand the land consumption patterns and planning capacity to guide this growth in an orderly manner to produce sustainable, inclusive and productive cities. Even more so when it is expected that by 2035 the total population of the country will increase by 9 million and, of these, 86% will be located in urban centers.

Orderly urban expansion and density issues are significant issues for the planning of cities. Quantitative evidence is useful to understand how cities grow, and the factors involved in it. Land-use policies are a key factor for influencing urban growth patterns and land-use efficiency.

To address this growth, Colombia has developed comprehensive legislation and regulatory guidelines that govern spatial planning and urban development in the country: Law 388 of 1997 and Law 1454 of 2011. The land-use regulations are condensed in a comprehensive planning tool called Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial (POT) or territorial organization plan (TOP). It is mandatory for every municipality (city) in Colombia to create a master plan (TOP). Its purpose is to promote zoning and regulations to control the urban phenomena, to enhance land-use efficiency and to create sustainable urban development.

A total of 32% of Colombian municipalities did not consider expansion areas in their land-use planning instruments (TOP), and 50% of the ones that did, did not measure it by using a formal estimation or methodology. A considerable proportion of urban growth in Colombia is taking place in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, doubling their urban extent in the last 30 years. Also, 30% of that increase occurred in rural and unprepared areas. These urban growth patterns result in low planning standards, urban informality, inefficient land use, lack of adequate infrastructure services and encroachment on sensitive sites.

A recent study found that all Colombian cities—regardless of their size—have been losing quality attributes as they grow (Galarza et al. 2018). Urban conditions, such as the number of open spaces, accessibility of open spaces, walkability ratio, even distribution of arterial roads and road width, to mention a few—have decreased in the last 30 years in the newly developed areas. In addition, a more recent study from Fedesarrollo (Salazar Tamayo et al. 2022) has also found that Colombian larger cities—those with a population larger than 100,000 dwellers—grow faster in extent than in population. This shows a higher land consumption rate per person and a constant decline in density. Also, the study identified that since 1990 to date, out of the 130,000 ha added to the urban landscape, one-quarter was developed on land not planned for urban uses.

Therefore, to acknowledge if Colombian cities are preparing to accommodate the upcoming urban expansion in an orderly fashion, it is necessary to assess the effectiveness of the long-range planning instruments in estimating the observed growth of the last three decades.

The intention of this paper is to provide clarity on urban expansion in Colombia, particularly where urban growth occurs and its correlation with planning policy and urban land policy instruments.

The present research considers the role of land-use planning instruments in guiding urban expansion. Specifically, it asks whether and how Colombian urban planners in five of Colombia’s larger cities (Barranquilla, Cali, Medellín, Bucaramanga and Pereira) are predicting and managing urban growth using each city’s most recent TOP.

To address this research question, a comparison of urban expansion is made between areas identified in land-use planning instruments and actual observed urban extents. The latter are based on the methodology provided in the Atlas of Urban Expansion (Angel et al. 2016a, 2016b). A comparison will provide evidence about local government preparedness for expansion and land requirements by assessing the basis of planners’ growth predictions (methods, calculations, or estimations). This will provide insights into observed urban growth in each city, the established trend, and whether this is included in their TOPs. This will reveal the extent of incorporation and usage of instruments by each city to plan for urban expansion.

2. Background

Urbanization is a demographic megatrend transforming the built environment (Koroso et al. 2020, 2021: 115). The world urban population is estimated to be around 4.775 billion in 2025, which is roughly 58% of the total population (UN-Habitat 2020: 12). Most of the world’s developed countries’ populations already live in urban areas, and in many developing countries urban areas have been experiencing considerable growth in the last 30 years. This recent growth has been defined by urban land expansion rates that are higher than or equal to urban population growth rates, suggesting that urban growth is becoming more expansive than compact (Angel et al. 2021a; Ahani & Dadashpoor 2021; Seto et al. 2011).

The spatiotemporal analysis of urban expansion patterns and dynamics is gaining a presence in the literature (Xu et al. 2019c). Studies have shown an intense relation between urban expansion and density (Xu et al. 2019b, 2019d).

As this phenomenon occurs, urban residents have consumed more space to develop urban activities (Angel et al. 2005). Studies have demonstrated that urban land expansion rates are higher than or equal to urban population growth rates (Xu et al. 2019a). Rapid urban expansion has profound implications for social, economic, and environmental issues, e.g. energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, spatial fragmentation, socioeconomic segregation, and loss of agricultural land (UN-Habitat 2020).

Peri-urbanization factors have been analyzed from different domains, approaches, methods, and indicators using quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods (Ahani & Dadashpoor 2021). Some systematic reviews also try to explain the different driving forces (i.e. structural, functional, or institutional forces) that affect the formation and expansion of the peri-urban areas (Xu et al. 2018; Dadashpoor & Ahani 2021). Institutional driving forces are considered the main driving force in the formation and expansion of peri-urban areas e.g. zoning, spatial plans, urban plans, or land-use policies (Dadashpoor & Ahani 2021). The presence of the compact city paradigm in those institutional instruments in opposition to the urban sprawl phenomena is recurrent and oriented to promote active containment of urban expansion through strict land-use and zoning regulations (Angel et al. 2021a: 13).

Density is both a technical and a political issue (McFarlane 2016). The decline in urban densities is often related to urban sprawl and land consumption intensity.

How cities actually grow is one of the main research questions in urban studies. The literature distinguishes three primary growth modes of urban expansion (Figure 1) (Angel et al. 2021a; Chakraborty et al. 2021, 2022; Xu et al. 2020):

Schematic diagram of the urban extent and three types of urban expansion
Figure 1 

Schematic diagram of the urban extent and three types of urban expansion.

Source: Xu et al. (2020).

  • infill: new developments that are entirely or mostly surrounded by already existing built-up lands
  • edge expansion: unidirectional growth on the edge of an existing urban area
  • leapfrog: growth that is detached from the existing urban land extent

There has been an increasing interest in empirical studies covering urban form, urban land-use patterns, and land-use efficiency (Deng et al. 2021; Koroso et al. 2021). Recent studies have mainly focused on Asian, African, European, and American cities (Chakraborty et al. 2022; Wolff et al. 2018; Xu et al. 2020; Yao et al. 2020). Conversely urban expansion in Latin America has received little attention, even though intense urban expansion has occurred in this part of the world in recent decades, with 81.2% of the total population living in cities in 2020 (UN-Habitat 2020).

Three studies focus on the urban growth in Latin American megacities. Inostroza et al. (2013) compare the urban sprawl and fragmentation in 10 big cities in Latin America, Piña (2014) compares the urban expansion of Santiago de Chile, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires. More recently, Cruz (2021) explores urban expansion patterns in four megalopolises in the region (Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires). But most of the body of evidence shows a fragmented and specific interest in intermediate and specific cities in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and Brazil. Azócar et al. (2007) is one of the first studies to identify urban expansion patterns in central Chile, followed by Salinas & Pérez (2011) and Rojas et al. (2021) who give attention to the urban expansion patterns of the city of Concepción. In Mexico, Lemoine et al. (2019) explore the urban change in the last six decades in Xalapa; and Barleta et al. (2020) study the expansion and its effects on social inequalities in Guadalajara. In Brazil, Pierri et al. (2021) assess the conflict between urban expansion and forest reserves in the coastal zone of Sao Paulo State. Li et al. (2022) categorize the urban expansion types in the last six decades in Brasilia. One study in Argentina focuses its analysis on the accelerated increase of urban land in the metropolitan area of Rosario (Galimberti 2021). Quito was another city selected by Salazar et al. (2020) and Serrano & Durán (2020) to identify the effects of inefficient land-use policies in urban sprawl and preservation of land consumption. There is little research that systematically studies the urban growth and expansion patterns in Colombian cities.

The Atlas of Urban Expansion (Angel et al. 2016a, 2016b) provided a useful starting point for Colombian municipalities to examine urban expansion. Galarza et al. (2018) identified the quantity and quality of urban growth of 100 Colombian cities, and more recently Angel et al. (2021b) found that cities with populations over 100,000 inhabitants are growing more than expected, reproducing global tendencies in their urban extents. In the last decade, big cities have increased their urban extent by 5.2% a year, but their populations only grew by 2.3% annually.

3. Colombian planning framework

In Colombia, spatial planning refers to norms and provisions relative to the country and its municipalities’ political–administrative organization. This includes the establishment of governing principles of land use; the definition of the institutional framework and instruments for territorial development; competencies in territorial ordering between the nation, territorial entities, and metropolitan areas; and the establishment of general norms for the territorial organization Law 388 of 1997 and Law 1454 of 2011. In Colombia, since the early 1990s, various expressions of spatial planning and territorial ordering have contained guidelines on territories and their inhabitants’ quality of life (Julio & Herrera 2016).

In 1991, the political constitution gave autonomy to municipalities and cities allowing them to promote spatial-planning instruments. Since then, the municipality has been the main actor in establishing obligations, ordering determinants, and corroborating with the mandate-establishing municipalities as the fundamental entity for territorial planning. This mandate was fundamental to Law 388 of 1997; its main concern relates to urban expansion and therefore the need for spatial planning (Julio & Herrera 2016; Julio et al. 2020).

Law 388 of 1997 was conceived as the normative base whereupon land-use planning was founded. This law establishes the municipality as an autonomous entity in territorial planning and development. This empowers each municipality to facilitate environmental protection, disaster prevention, and execution of efficient urban actions. The law stipulates spatial planning’s principles, objectives, and function. It establishes the need for a comprehensive land-use plan as the:

basic instrument to develop the municipal land-use planning process [defined …] as the set of objectives, guidelines, policies, strategies, goals, programs, actions, and standards adopted to guide and manage the physical development of the territory and the use of the land.

(Law 388 of 1997)

Therefore, all the country’s municipalities must have a territorial organization plan (TOP) that develops spatial-planning precepts established according to the municipalities’ number of inhabitants. For the categorization and determination of the tool’s development at the municipal level, the zoning law considered this demographic criterion as the only variable, ignoring the deep level of heterogeneity—area (km2), administrative capacity—and different urban phenomena that then characterized urban settlements in Colombia (Table 1).

Table 1

Types of spatial-planning instruments in Colombia


Districts and municipalities > 100,000 inhabitants Territorial organization plan (TOP) (Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial—POT)

Municipalities 30,000–100,000 inhabitants Territorial organization basic plan (TOBP) (Planes Básicos de Ordenamiento Territorial—PBOT)

Municipalities < 30,000 inhabitants Territorial organization scheme (TOS) (Esquemas Básicos de Ordenamiento Territorial—EOT)

4. Methods

An approach is outlined to assess how densification and orderly growth have been incorporated into the planning instruments in Colombia. The present research uses the definition of the urban extent definition created by Angel et al. (2016a, 2016b). This definition is compared with the land-use categories defined by TOP. This approach allows a comparison of the prospective growth identified in the planning process and the actual growth observed over the last 30 years. This will help to reveal the accuracy of the TOPs.

The urban extent refers to a multitemporal analysis of an urban settlement growth dynamic. The analysis is performed for three or four different periods based on the availability of satellite images. There are only two basic inputs needed: 30 × 30 m Landsat satellite images and population data tied to districts (Angel et al. 2012). Figure 2 illustrates the process:

The three stages of the urban extent method: this example shows Cali, Colombia
Figure 2 

The three stages of the urban extent method: this example shows Cali, Colombia.

Source: Salazar Tamayo et al. (2022).

  1. the Landsat image is collected and then classified into built-up area, open space, and water
  2. the subsequent analysis of the built-up area and open space to generate urban clusters
  3. the determination of a city’s urban extent using an inclusion rule (Angel et al. 2016a).

Overall, this approach measures the dimension of the built-up areas showing their geographical extent. It ‘follows the Roman tradition of defining a city by the edge of its built-up area, its extrema tectorum’ (Angel et al. 2016a: 10). This defines actual development rather than administrative boundaries.

By using this approach, the observed urban expansion becomes an input for a deeper analysis. The second stage consists of a desk review of the TOPs of the selected case studies. This provides details on the concepts and evidence used by local governments to plan for their future development. Moreover, specific data about land for expansion, its locations, and the principles behind its consideration and calculation will be made visible.

The third step consists of overlapping the two layers of information consolidated during steps 1 and 2. This comparison shows whether the planned land categories correspond to the observed growth. It also provides insights into the TOPs’ capacity to foresee land demand and to guide development processes at the municipal level. Figure 3 illustrates the result of this comparison in Cartagena, where the land-use categories are displayed in red (urban area), pale orange (suburban area), yellow (expansion area), and green (rural area). The actual urban extent observed for 2015 is placed on top to make obvious the disparities between planned growth and the observed one.

Cartagena: comparison between the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories and observed growth, 2015
Figure 3 

Cartagena: comparison between the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories and observed growth, 2015.

Source: Authors.

4.1 Selection of cities

The analysis was limited to five cities in Colombia each with over 100,000 inhabitants. Colombia has a total of 43 consolidated urban areas with a population greater than 100,000. Fifteen of these urban areas contain 22 million urban dwellers, which represent close to 62% of the total urban population (Salazar Tamayo et al. 2022). These 15 areas are composed of 63 municipalities, making it evident that urban reality in Colombia is a metropolitan reality. Deep interdependencies become clear when it comes to territorial, economic, and sustainable development. Therefore, it is important to select some case studies that reflect this reality.

Angel et al. (2021b) built a group classification for the 43 cities in Colombia based on population weight. Table 2 illustrates the distribution of the cities in five groups. Group 0 is Bogotá, which is the largest city in the country and accounts for 31% of the total urban population. Following this unique city, the other groups were established by a multiplier that guarantee that each group (starting from group 4) had 1-2-4-8 times the population defined by the multiplier, guaranteeing a proportionate distribution.

Table 2

Colombian cities each with more than 100,000 inhabitants, grouped by population size


0 1 (Bogotá) 8,758,865 > 4 million 8,758,865

1 5 10,281,868 950,000–4 million 2,056,374

2 10 4,921,131 300,000–949,999 492,113

3 15 2,787,079 119,000–299,999 185,805

4 12 1,301,690 100,000–118,999 108,474

Total 43 28,050,633 652,340

Source: Angel et al. (2021b).

This classification is useful to select significant case studies. Specifically, urban areas in group 1 represent almost 40% of the urban population of the country. Group 1 cities were selected for this study to represent the urban population living in metropolitan areas. The analysis of urban growth patterns and the existence of expansion criteria will provide elements to categorize and understand the urban phenomenon in the main urban context in Colombia, observing the efficiency of spatial planning instruments in controlling and guiding urban expansion. The selected case studies are Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, and Cartagena.

Although these case studies do not constitute a representative sample, they provide a solid basis for gathering information on cities that are large, with access to resources, and with high managerial capacities. These cities are considered as exemplars in their national urban context. The results found in this study can also be used to make inferences about other cities in Colombia. The assumption is that if larger cities with high capacities are unable to predict their expansion, then other cities with less capacity would find it more difficult to achieve.

5. Results and discussion

5.1 Medellín (Aburra Valley Metro Area)

For Medellín the urban growth analysis not only involves this municipality but also nine additional local authorities. This agglomeration, the second largest in Colombia, is known as the Aburra Valley Metro Area. During the last 30 years, the urban extent grew from 13,260 to 27,640 ha (Salazar Tamayo et al. 2022). The urban extent grew at an average 2.6%/year, explaining the doubling in size. It is evident that the growth was driven by the northeast and southwest axis of the agglomeration. Figure 4 shows the location of the built-up area throughout the entire agglomeration area and the evolution of the urban extent.

Aburra Valley Metro Area: urban extent evolution, 1990–2020
Figure 4 

Aburra Valley Metro Area: urban extent evolution, 1990–2020.

Source: Salazar Tamayo et al. (2022).

There are two major concerns: the change in urban conditions and the capacity to manage urban growth. The average density in this metro area decreased at an average annual rate of 0.4%, from 161 to 142 people/ha. A loss in urban compactness can be observed. On average, all the points in the agglomeration are farther from the central business district (CBD) and from each other, increasing distances and travel time. The decrease in urban attributes is also evident in the allocation of arterial roads and accessibility to open spaces. Arterial roads decreased from 19% of the urban extent to just 8% of the newly developed areas and open spaces.

During the last 30 years, the urban extent grew by 14,000 ha, and more than half of this growth (59%) was accommodated on rural land. Only 41% of the growth was located on land planned for development, 31% in urban land, and 10% in designated expansion areas. This means that most of the growth occurred on land not suitable to accommodate this type of development, and the ability to control the phenomenon was low. Figure 5 illustrates the relationship between the built-up area and the land categories established by the TOP and the same interaction with the urban extent.

Aburra Valley Metro Area: interaction between urban extent and top categories
Figure 5 

Aburra Valley Metro Area: interaction between urban extent and top categories.

Source: Salazar Tamayo et al. (2022).

This low capacity of signaling and controlling development can be explained by several factors. First, there is no reference to empirical data to calculate land needs in all 10 TOPs. Furthermore, the average land appointed as an expansion area adds only 3%, while urban areas represent 37% and rural areas 60%. Only two municipalities dedicate a significant amount of land to future growth. Table 3 shows the proportion of land dedicated to these uses by each local authority in the agglomeration.

Table 3

Aburra Valley: proportion of land dedicated to each land category in each municipality’s territorial organization plan (TOP)


Urban 57% 37% 74% 42% 4% 44% 18% 28% 1% 6%

Expansion 1% 2% 8% 2% 6% 34% 0% 19% 1% 1%

Rural 42% 61% 18% 56% 90% 22% 82% 53% 98% 94%

Another important factor is the length of term for each land-use instrument and how up to date they are. In the Aburra Valley Metro Area, five TOPs are within the terms of validity under the Colombian legal framework: they have a shelf life of less than 12 years. However, the other five TOP have been around on average for more than 15 years. Yet, if a new plan is not issued after this term, the old one will remain valid until it is updated. So a TOP can be outdated but will remain legally binding until revised regulation is set. The downside is that many municipalities manage their growth and urban development based on visions, goals, and rules set more than 15 years ago.

There is a lack of coordination between these TOPs which indicates that the regional vision for managing this growth has been delegated to the metropolitan coordination instruments.

Although this is the oldest metropolitan area in the country and was formally created in 1980, its metropolitan strategic plan for territorial planning was only approved in 2018. Then the TOPs instruments are not updated, nor are they coordinated, and the metropolitan vision seems to have arrived late to the regulation of the urban phenomenon.

5.2 Cali

Cali is the third largest agglomeration in Colombia with a population of 2.3 million urban dwellers. In the case study group, Cali is the second largest metro area following Medellín. It is important to highlight the existence of three similarities with the previous case study. Cali, like Medellín, loses urban quality conditions as it grows. Second, the TOPs do not consider reasonable amounts of land for expansion, nor do they support these decisions in robust calculations or methodologies. Third, the observed growth occurs largely in land not prepared for growth (i.e. no infrastructure or services are present).

Figures 6 and 7 show the evolution of the urban extent throughout the entire study area and its interaction with the TOP land categories. The urban extent doubled its size from 9600 to almost 19,000 ha, growing at an average annual rate of 2.2%. However, this agglomeration led to a decrease in density (from 171 to 124 people/ha), an increase in saturation (from 0.70 to 0.78) (saturation is the increased build-up area within an urban extent, i.e. a decrease of open space in a given area over time due to the impermeabilization of the surface), a decrease in compactness (loss in proximity and cohesion), and a loss in the road network. This means less space was dedicated to roads, only 5% in the newly developed areas in comparison with a 12% before 1990. Also, the general road width average decreased.

Cali agglomeration: evolution of the urban extent, 1990–2020
Figure 6 

Cali agglomeration: evolution of the urban extent, 1990–2020.

Source: Salazar Tamayo et al. (2022).

Cali agglomeration: evolution of the urban extent and its interaction with the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories
Figure 7 

Cali agglomeration: evolution of the urban extent and its interaction with the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories.

Source: Salazar Tamayo et al. (2022).

Urban areas accommodated 42% of the growth by infill, expansion areas accommodated 9%, while rural areas experienced 49% of the growth. The rural area was developed mostly through low-density suburban occupation with little attention to the road layout and utility interconnections. After reviewing each of the TOPs of the five municipalities that comprise this agglomeration, there was no reference to a methodology to support the allocation of land in each of the categories (urban, expansion, and rural). Furthermore, on average 18% of the land was dedicated to urban, 1% to expansion, and 82% to rural uses. Considering that the urban population grew by 700,000 dwellers, it seems that land projection needs fell short. Table 4 details the allocation of land to each use per municipality. Figure 7 shows the interaction of the urban extent with the TOP land categories.

Table 4

Cali agglomeration: proportion of land dedicated to each land category in each municipality’s territorial organization plan (TOP)


Urban 48% 6% 3% 8% 2%

Expansion 2% 0% 1% 0% 1%

Rural 50% 93% 95% 91% 97%

In addition to the miscalculation of land needs, there is also a lack of capacity in local governments to guide growth in the designated land to be developed. The case of this agglomeration is special because three out of the five land-use planning instruments are outdated and the two being enforced have already been around for eight years. Also, no formal coordination exists at the metropolitan level.

5.3 Barranquilla

The Barranquilla metro area (AMB) is the third-largest metro area in the selected sample and the fourth countrywide. It is composed of five municipalities: Barranquilla, Soledad, Malambo, Galapa, and Puerto Colombia. Although AMB maintains some similarities with the previous case studies, it introduces important differences concerning the amount of land destined for urban and expansion uses.

AMB added 7000 ha to its urban extent and also experienced a significant population growth: from 1.1 million to 2 million in 30 years. The average annual population growth rate (2.2%) outpaced the urban extent rate (2.0%), resulting in the densification of the urban footprint (from 120 to 126 people/ha). Despite the good news of a decelerated land consumption rate, the metro area also experienced—like all other cases so far—a loss in urban attributes. There was a considerable high saturation and access to open spaces became more difficult. Also, as distances increased within AMB, the road network did not provide the extent and capacity that impacted on urban dwellers’ access to jobs, goods, and services. Figure 8 shows the evolution of the urban extent over the last 30 years.

Barranquilla metro area (AMB): evolution of the urban extent, 1990–2020
Figure 8 

Barranquilla metro area (AMB): evolution of the urban extent, 1990–2020.

Source: Salazar Tamayo et al. (2022).

This metro area displays a different behavior in terms of its capacity to guide growth. A total of 63% of growth was accommodated in urban areas through infill, 27% in expansion areas, and only 10% was registered in unprepared land located in rural areas. This is the average for the five municipalities, but Malambo registers a 30% rate of accommodating urban development in rural areas. This capacity to signal urban expansion can be explained by the amount of land dedicated to urban and expansion uses. This metro area dedicates 60% of its land for urban uses, 12% to expansion, and only 28% to rural uses. Table 5 illustrates the allocation determined by each TOP. Figure 9 shows how the latest urban extent interacts with the different land categories defined by all five TOPs.

Table 5

Barranquilla metro area (AMB): proportion of land dedicated to each land category in each municipality’s territorial organization plan (TOP)


Urban 84% 76% 19% 29% 13%

Expansion 8% 7% 12% 18% 31%

Rural 8% 16% 69% 53% 57%

Barranquilla metro area (AMB): evolution of the urban extent and its interaction with the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories
Figure 9 

Barranquilla metro area (AMB): evolution of the urban extent and its interaction with the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories.

Source: Salazar Tamayo et al. (2022).

This generous land allocation may explain the capacity for foreseen growth. However, this allocation is not accompanied by any robust method to calculate land needs. Another important finding is that all land-use planning instruments have been around for 8–20 years, which makes some of them outdated. Their future vision was built in the early 2000s and has not been updated.

The formal metropolitan coordination tier was only generated by the metro plan in 2021. It is essential to highlight that in 2011 and 2013 the Colombian legal framework established the metropolitan planning tools. But their formulation and approval process has lagged, diminishing its entire purpose of serving as supra-coordinators in a space where urban dynamics have already surpassed single jurisdictions.

5.4 Bucaramanga

Bucaramanga is a formal metropolitan area composed of four municipalities. This agglomeration added 4000 ha to its urban extent over the last 30 years, doubling its size. Like most of the aforementioned cases, there is evidence of loss in quality in some urban attributes such as density, accessibility, and availability of open spaces, distance to the CBD, and road network. Figures 10 and 11 show the amount of growth observed in the studied period and its interaction with the TOPs of each municipality of the agglomeration.

Bucaramanga agglomeration: evolution of the built-up area and urban extent
Figure 10 

Bucaramanga agglomeration: evolution of the built-up area and urban extent.

Source: Salazar Tamayo et al. (2022).

Bucaramanga agglomeration: evolution of the built-up area and urban extent in and its interaction with the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories
Figure 11 

Bucaramanga agglomeration: evolution of the built-up area and urban extent in and its interaction with the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories.

Source: Salazar Tamayo et al. (2022).

Out of the observed growth, 69% was accommodated in land prepared for development. Specifically, 51% took place in urban areas and 18% in expansion areas. However, a still important portion of the growth, a third (30%), took place in land not prepared to host this type of use and development. Of the four municipalities, Piedecuesta is the only one that has an urban expansion over rural land higher than the average, registering 49%. None of these four municipalities used empirical data and methods that manage future expansion and support the allocation of land categories. Table 6 describes each municipality’s ideal amount of land for each use, which on average seems to be short (15% urban, 3% expansion, and 82% rural) based on the actual observed growth. Figure 11 displays the areas occupied by the urban extent according to the TOP land categories.

Table 6

Bucaramanga agglomeration: proportion of land dedicated to each land category in each municipality’s territorial organization plan (TOP)


Urban 45% 27% 6% 4%

Expansion 1% 6% 4% 1%

Rural 54% 67% 90% 95%

5.5 cartagena

Cartagena is the smallest of the agglomerations in the sample in terms of population but also is the one that gathers the smallest number of municipalities: just two. This agglomeration follows the same tendency found in other cases that the newly developed area has worse layout conditions than the areas developed before 1990. In terms of observed growth, this metro area experienced a doubling in size of the urban extent. Figures 12 and 13 show a consolidated urban extent along the sea and which is slowly moving inland, as revealed by the dynamic portrait by the built-up cover layer.

Cartagena agglomeration: evolution of the urban extent
Figure 12 

Cartagena agglomeration: evolution of the urban extent.

Source: Authors.

Cartagena agglomeration: evolution of the built-up area and urban extent and its interaction with the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories
Figure 13 

Cartagena agglomeration: evolution of the built-up area and urban extent and its interaction with the territorial organization plan’s (TOP) land categories.

Source: Authors.

The doubling of the urban extent is based on the addition of 4300 ha. This growth was mainly accommodated in urban land (67%) and expansion land (14%). However, almost 20% of that growth still occurred in rural land not prepared. On average these municipalities accounted for 28% of their land for urban uses, 4% for expansion, and 68% for rural uses (Table 7). The rationale behind this allocation is not clear or explicit in the land-use planning instruments. Figure 13 shows how the latest urban extent interacts with the different land categories defined by the two TOPs.

Table 7

Cartagena agglomeration: proportion of land dedicated to each land category in each municipality’s territorial organization plan (TOP)


Urban 32% 13%

Expansion 4% 5%

Rural 64% 83%

6. Lessons learned and next steps

These Colombian case studies show that land-use policy instruments inaccurately portray the reality of urban growth and more importantly do not use empirical data to assess future land needs. Local planners lack methods to calculate and predict the allocation of land. In a total of five metropolitan areas composed of 26 municipalities, none of the TOPs of the agglomerations incorporates formal methods of this nature. Some timid references are made to official data such as census data, but no mention of how to use them.

The existence of an official metropolitan area as a coordination tier does not make a difference in managing urban growth. In the Colombian case, metropolitan strategic plans show a lack of harmonization mechanism to coordinate these instruments with the valid TOPs in each municipality. This has counterintuitive effects because it undermines the potential of a new scale of analysis and management that is necessary in Colombia: the metropolitan scale.

Lastly, the data show that Colombian cities are not prepared to accommodate the upcoming urban expansion. Cities are growing more than expected (by their planning instruments) and a considerable portion of this growth is taking part in land that is not prepared for this development: agricultural land, high-risk areas, or environmentally valuable areas.

In a broader sense, this raises the question of whether other urban planners in the Global South have robust methods to estimate the amount of land needed for expansion. If their forecasting process is unclear and distant from an evidence-based approach, then similar problems are likely to ensue. Disorderly urban expansion occurs not because it is an inevitable phenomenon tied to growth but due to the absence of adequate planning and enforcement capabilities.


The authors thank their colleagues from Fedesarrollo for making publically available the data gathered for the project ‘Proposals to Update the Colombian Planning Framework to Meet the Paris Agreement Goals’. The results from this project are the basis for this research. The authors also express their deep gratitude to Buildings & Cities and the Marron Institute for placing the urban expansion topic at the centre of the debate and allowing them to contribute to it.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.


The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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